Doña Vera left another Clemente legacy
In Spanish, the direct translation of Doña means “Mrs.” or “ma’am,” but in Spanish-speaking countries the title goes beyond that. Its usage conveys deference and the utmost respect, and rarely has any bearing on whether the Doña in question is married or not.
In the case of Vera Clemente, or Doña Vera as she was better known, she was indeed married – to Hall of Fame legend Roberto Clemente. But she was also an exceptional woman in her own right.
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A graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, Cristina Vera Zabala used her degree in business administration to work as a teller at a government bank in Carolina, Puerto Rico – Roberto’s hometown. It was there, running an errand at the drugstore across the street, that Vera first encountered the future Hall of Famer.
Roberto returned home to Puerto Rico at the end of every season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and by the start of 1964 the outfielder was already a four-time All Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner. He saw Vera while driving past the drugstore, and quickly pulled over, walked into the store and introduced himself.
She rebuffed his advances, but Roberto was persistent. He explained to her that he was “in a hurry to have a family because he was going to die young but that God had a plan for him.” Vera felt similarly, echoing that she “felt God’s plan was for [her] to assist Roberto.”
The two wed on Nov. 14, 1964 in Carolina, in front of hundreds of friends and family, including the Governor of Puerto Rico and a number of Roberto’s teammates. They welcomed three sons: Roberto Clemente Jr., Luis Roberto Clemente and Roberto Enrique Clemente. But tragedy struck the Clementes just eight years later when the plane Roberto chartered to carry aid supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua crashed in the ocean.
“If he had died in a common way, people would still remember him,” Vera told Claire Smith in a 1994 interview with the New York Times. “But Dec. 31 (1972), it was a special day and his was a special mission. I admire him for that, as a person, as a human being.”
It was a day that shattered the world, and one that changed baseball in ways we still experience today. The Commissioner’s Award was renamed in his honor, and the mandatory five-year waiting period to elect him to the Hall of Fame was waived. Clemente became the first Latin American to earn election, and Major League Baseball commemorates his legacy annually with Roberto Clemente Day.
“There were so many letters,” she recalled, reflecting on the aftermath of Roberto’s death in the Philadelphia Daily News in 1976. “So many beautiful letters. I tried to answer as many as I could, but it was not possible to keep up. I still receive them...People from Nicaragua, people from Pittsburgh, people from everywhere. People who never saw him play.”
Vera delivered an emotional speech during the 1973 Induction Ceremony in Cooperstown, still shrouded in mourning black. “This is Roberto’s final honor,” she told the crowd. “And if he were here he would say to our people in Puerto Rico, to our people in Pittsburgh and to all his fans around the United States: Thank you.”
It was far from the last speech she would deliver on her husband’s behalf, and voicing her gratitude for Roberto’s posthumous honors and awards was just one small part of how Vera carried on and elevated The Great One’s legacy.
“He was planning for the next four years before he died. That was Roberto. He was adding every day and he got up with a new idea every morning.” Vera took those plans and transformed them into actions, with her first project being the realization of Roberto’s dream to create a sports center for young people in Puerto Rico.
Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente, the Roberto Clemente Sports City, was established in 1976 under her leadership. It was enormous – a sprawling assortment of baseball diamonds, tennis courts, basketball courts, dormitories and other facilities spread across 303 acres of government-donated land. Building it took years, and considerable fundraising efforts.
“It’s more than work,” she said in 1994. “My time is here. I never take a vacation.”
And there truly was no offseason for Doña Vera, who dedicated her life to humanitarian work.
She did not merely act out her husband's plans; she changed lives through her own strength, tenacity and generosity of spirit.
Vera established the Roberto Clemente Foundation and served as its Chairwoman, raising money for community outreach programs and baseball clinics for underprivileged youth. She served as a Goodwill Ambassador for Major League Baseball, and was a steadfast supporter of the annual Clemente Award.
‘I’m very proud to be Roberto’s son, but I feel extremely fortunate to be Vera’s son, as well,” her son Luis Clemente said in 2019.
Vera Clemente passed away on Nov. 16, 2019, leaving behind an incredible legacy not even Roberto could have imagined.
Isabelle Minasian was the digital content specialist for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum